Mixing Sports and Business

In the last two days I've devoured every article in the Washington Post about the Nationals painful and epic defeat on Friday night in the NLDS. It was a tough way to see the season end, there's no doubt about that.

(from wallyg on Flickr)

These articles make it clear that there are a lot of people emotionally invested in professional sports. I think they sometimes they forget that, ultimately, Major League Baseball is big business. Each team is a major corporation and the league itself is an organization governed by a bunch of executives. The television networks that show the games are under contract with the team owners and the games aren't usually available to those without cable.

This is why it can be so hard to be a fan in this game. It's the multi-millionaire and billionaire owners that call most of the shots. They get to decide how much they're willing to spend on players. They get to decide who to hire as the CEO of the company. They get to decide how much they charge their fans for the privileged of attending a game. They get to decide whether having a winning team is more profitable than having a losing team. Hell, they get to decide whether to even stick with their current city or pack up and leave for another.

In this arrangement, the "fans" are really "customers" and the "players" are just "employees" of the company that is the franchise. The fans put their hearts into their favorite teams, but it usually feels like the billionaire owners think about themselves before they think about the fans. Psychologically, fans don't like the idea that they're customers of their favorite team for the same reason college students don't like the idea that they're customers of the school they attend.

There were a lot of shenanigans that got on my nerves at the end of this year's regular season. Lerner's refusal to put up a few thousand dollars to keep Metro open late was at the top of that list. The actual cost would have been chump change, given how profitable a single postseason game surely was. But the refusal to do it made me feel conflicted - how could I be enthusiastic about a team who's owner behaves like such a selfish jerk?

The way MLB handled playoff scheduling and their contract with TBS was another thing that bothers me. The Nationals had the best record in baseball, but only got to play one night game in the five game NLDS. For the first home game of the series, MLB stuck Washington with the 1pm game and decided that it would be shown on the obscure Major League Baseball Network. Even the games shown on TBS seemed amateurish and the commentators were downright terrible.

Should the playoffs be a time to reward teams for their performance in the regular season? Maybe; but MLB's playoff scheduling is deliberately designed to put the most "profitable" games in prime time and stick the less profitable games in the afternoon time slots. The Nationals may have had a lot of success during the regular season, but they didn't have the all important "brand" that MLB cares about.

People like to think of professional sports as a game and not as a business. At least baseball would be a lot more enjoyable for the fans if their interests were aligned with the team owners - winning games. The reality is that fans of some teams have it better than others, but at the end of the day, it's all business, and it's all money.

Businesses as Third Places

Jessica Sidman has a well-written story about Yola, the recently-shuttered yogurt/coffee shop in Dupont Circle. I'll admit that I didn't go to Yola especially frequently, though I don't work too far away. That said, it was the kind of business that people frequently say they want in their neighborhood - a warm, inviting shop with lots of seating and better than average food and drinks.

(from Brother O'Mara on Flickr)

One of the store's partners is surprisingly open about the experience and the hardships that came with it. It's a story that makes me feel pessimistic about doing something as entrepreneurial as opening my own coffee shop in the city. She explains the problem about as explicitly as anyone ever has:
"We are a $5 average check size business in a close to $10,000-a-month rent location. It just doesn’t work. The math doesn’t work.” 
It's easy for an observer to sit back and recount the ways the business was a failure, or how it was doomed from the start. The same thing happened when Mid City Caffe shuttered last year. These people would say "a businessperson who knew what they were doing would have never opened in the first place, because the conditions weren't right".

Unfortunately, that's the reality and the problem. The environment is such that either a bright-eyed entrepreneur tries, and eventually it doesn't work out; or the business simply never exists in the first place. So whether or not it ever gets a chance, it simply isn't a sustainable proposition.

To survive, the business has to make either the revenue side of the equation, or the cost side of the equation, work in their favor. The problem is a classic chicken and egg: in order to make revenue, you need volume, and volume is highest where there's a lot of foot traffic.  Rents are also highest where there's a lot of foot traffic. Given that constraint, how do you make it work?

When I researched and wrote about this last year, the owner of Peregrine Espresso explained it to me in pretty clear terms. You have to keep the rent costs down, which typically means having as few square feet as you can reasonably operate a coffee shop in. It means you do a lot of take out business, and dis-incentivize "camping" at tables. In essence, you make it work by not being a "third place".

 Over at District Bean, coffee guru Jonathan writes:
In the grand scheme of things, though, there is so much activity in the DC coffee scene that the closing of one shop is but a blip in a wave of progress. 
I think he's right, but I also think this points to the divorce between coffee and third places. We'll still have coffee shops, especially ones that serve good coffee, because more people are demanding it than ever. But these coffee shops will either be located in storefronts with virtually no space, requiring you to take your drink to-go; or they'll share space with a business that can successfully cross-subsidize the coffee side, like a bar.

At the end of the day, a business can only be a viable third place if it's also profitable, and I think the days of coffee shops being meeting places or studying places or blogging places are over. Good coffee will live on, but the space where we enjoy it will change.

A Defense of Schlepping

Tess Wilson has a great article at Apartment Therapy that points out the benefits of schlepping stuff around the city. Her post focuses mostly on the fact that schlepping is good exercise, which it is; but I'd argue that it's even more than that. It's a seeming inconvenience that has plenty of unintended benefits.

Take grocery shopping for example. There are plenty of people who will argue until they're blue in the face that grocery shopping without a car is an unacceptable burden in life. I wouldn't take it that far, but I would agree that it's less convenient and more challenging to do than if you have access to a car.

(from william couch on Flickr)

I don't have a car, so when I do it, it means I have to make strategic shopping choices. I don't buy whole watermelons or 12-packs of Pepsi because those things are really heavy and bulky and difficult to transport without a car. To some people this is a great tragedy.

What would life be without sugary soda and 15 pound melons? To me, it's a blessing in disguise. Schlepping means I keep fresher food in the house, because I'm not tempted to "stock up" on junk that keeps indefinitely in the pantry. It means I have less waste because I don't overbuy.

No, this isn't for everybody, and I've heard dozens upon dozens of reasons why it's impossible for many people and many families. But that's not the point. The point is that sometimes when you look past what seems obvious, and you move beyond seeking out convenience at any cost, what you find might not be quite as bad as you might think. It could even be a blessing in disguise.

"Devil Wagons"

The transportation exhibit at the Smithsonian's American History museum is one of my favorites. It's as much about the evolution of transportation technology as it is about the history of suburban sprawl. It's a pretty balanced approach to the issue too.

(from gGraphy on Flickr)

Last weekend I stumbled across this little nugget in the exhibit:
Americans Adopt the Auto

Cars Everywhere?

For automobiles to become a permanent fixture on the American landscape - rather than simply a toy for the rich - people needed to be convinced that they were reliable, useful, appropriate, and even necessary. In the early years of motoring, not all Americans were convinced that the new "devil wagons" were here to stay. But as people came to value the convenience of the car, and as they adapted it to their own needs, cars became a significant part of everyday life.
This statement is enlightening because today we take for granted that cars rule the urban landscape, and in fact, the "necessity" of them was not immediately obvious when they first came onto the market. In fact, the necessity of them was questioned pretty aggressively.

Today, people believe that cars are absolutely a necessity - and they're not entirely wrong. But it's because we made policy decisions throughout history that made it that way. The reason why sprawl happened the way it did is complex. It's not simply because people wanted it to happen, as some believe; nor is it simply because government pushed it to happen, as others believe. The reason is somewhere in the middle, but it didn't happen by accident.

Legal Gray Areas

There's a rant over at the Washington Post about towing companies in the DC area. You can click through and read the article, but it sums up like this: Person can't find a legal parking space in a busy neighborhood. Person decides to park illegally instead. Person leaves the car unattended for ten minutes and car gets towed for being parked illegally. Person gets very upset. Person calls the situation "predatory". The end.

(from roujo on Flickr)

The article makes every indication that the author knew that parking in the space was illegal. There's also nothing to lead the reader to believe the towing company acted in violation of the government's regulations. If there were evidence that the towing company acted illegally, I think it would be more than fair to call this "predatory", but let's examine the situation for how it's described.

This point in particular caught my eye.
So we pulled into one of about four empty spaces outside a dry cleaner that was closed, right next to the building entrance. And, yes, there was a sign that said towing was enforced 24 hours.
I stayed with the car until I had to go up to help my husband lug the piece through the lobby. I put a sign on the car windshield written in Magic Marker: “Moving furniture, back in 10 mins, PLEASE don’t tow,” and put my flashers on. No mercy!
Emphasis mine. I see this every single day: an illegally parked car (usually doubled parked, but sometimes parked in a rush-hour zone) and the hazard flashers blinking, and I don't get it. Why do people think that putting the hazard flashers on makes an illegal parking job acceptable?

If anything, doing this does two things. First, it draws attention to the vehicle, so that the nearest parking enforcement officer can ticket the car, or call for a tow, or both. Second, it's an admission of guilt. The person parking illegally clearly knows it's wrong but does it anyway. You never see legally parked cars with hazard flashers on... The only thing I can think of is that this maneuver might prevent someone else from rear-ending the illegally parked car.

There has been a lot of discussion about ethics in transportation recently. First a debate over whether cameras should be allowed to catch speeders. Then a series of articles about whether it's OK for bicyclists to go through red lights. Now this about whether it's "predatory" for a company to tow an illegally parked car. All we need is someone to write an article about whether jaywalking is acceptable and we'll have hit the transportation ethics trifecta.

One common theme seems to come out in these pieces. A non-negligible number of people will say "it's totally illegitimate and unacceptable to bust speeders or illegal parkers if the speeding or illegal parking wasn't too bad".  There are people who will say "of course bicyclists need to go through red lights for X, Y and Z reasons".

Point is, it doesn't matter what the mode of transportation is in question, law breaking is rampant out there. The question is when and if law breaking should be tolerated. Should going 5 mph over the speed limit be ignored but 15 mph over not? Should illegally parking for 10 minutes be tolerated by illegally parking for 30 minutes not? How do we draw that line?

It's a very difficult conversation to have because the public opinion is not black and white. Instead, we're in a weird gray area where it's really difficult to decide on the appropriate shade of gray.
The Washington DC economy benefits heavily from tourism. Some businesses benefit directly while others take advantage of tourism spillovers. Is Capital Bikeshare in the same boat? I took a look at membership and trip data for one year from April 1, 2011 through March 31, 2012 to get to the answer.

Capital Bikeshare offers a variety of products, from one-day memberships up to annual memberships. Annual and monthly members (registered users) have plastic red keys that allow them to access the system. Everyone else (casual users) use their credit card to access the system for short-term periods. Though not perfect, this makes a nice proxy for locals (registered users) and tourists (casual users).

More short-term memberships were sold during the 12 month study period than for full-memberships. But since full-memberships cost more they ultimately generated more estimated revenue*.

Click to Enlarge

*This is a good time to mention that these are not actual revenue figures. These are estimates that I'm calculating based on membership, trip and price data. The actual numbers are probably slightly different. For example, the revenue statistic for registered users is likely inflated because I'm not taking into account the Living Social deal that Capital Bikeshare ran last year; but for the sake of this post I'll assume a "best case scenario". A more detailed methodology and caveats is posted here.

The real difference comes when you look at how registered and casual users are utilizing the system. Prior work has shown that casual users have a much higher propensity to take rides that incur fees. In fact 97% of registered user trips were less than 30 minutes and therefore generated no revenue. Only 59% of casual member trips were under 30 minutes.

Taxing Olympians

I stumbled across this article yesterday on the Americans for Tax Reform website. It's about how the IRS can (in theory) tax Olympics athletes who win medals, on the basis that those medals are taxable as income. The conclusion of the post is: isn't it outrageous?!

(from Shazz Mack on Flickr)

The problem with the simple analysis is that it assumes an absolute worst-case scenario. In other words, they present a chart that shows the tax costs for gold, silver and bronze medals, assuming that the winner falls into the 35% tax bracket ($388,000 per year and above).

Now, some athletes certainly fall into this bracket. The NBA players on the men's basketball team are filthy rich, so it's hard to feel bad that the tax falls on them. A few other high profile athletes, like Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps get big bonuses from their sponsors and aren't hard-up for money. But I suspect that many American Olympians are of modest means and probably don't pay a 35% marginal tax rate anyway.

The funny thing is that the Americans for Tax Reform article links to a Reuters article that concludes with this:
Still, [Alex Knight, a tax partner at Atlanta’s Habif, Arogeti & Wynne] doesn’t expect to see the IRS chasing after athletes for a slice of their gold. “I have to imagine that would be a public relations nightmare,” says Knight.
Taxation is a funny topic. Nobody likes to pay them, so it's easy to point to any tax, no matter how far fetched and say, "hey look, the government wants to take your money, isn't that outrageous!?" Well, sometimes it's a lot less outrageous than it may sound.
Earlier in the month a series of floods wreaked havoc on the Bloomingdale neighborhood in DC. It was the result of a variety of factors, including weather, geography and out-of-date infrastructure. In short, when it rains really hard and really quickly, water flows downhill into Bloomingdale but there's not enough sewer capacity to carry it away.

(from bhrome on Flickr)

The solution? A multi-billion (with a B) dollar project by the water utility to install a sewer tunnel from Bloomingdale to the water-treatment plant on the other side of town (among a handful of other things).

This is not the kind of "sexy" infrastructure project that typically gets a lot of attention. The Silver Line to Dulles is an expensive project  that a lot of people have an opinion on. Capital Bikeshare is a much less expensive project that gets a lot of attention. But a storm sewer?.. it's hard to get people excited about that.

It's probably nonetheless one of the most important infrastructure projects in the city. It's a reminder that when cities get old, things need to be replaced and upgraded. Infrastructure is durable, but it doesn't last forever. When it works like it should, nobody really notices. But when it fails, and people have to suffer through multiple floods in a month - that's when people actually start to notice.

Small Business Culture

Earlier in the month Kojo Nnamdi spent an hour discussing the challenges that small businesses have in DC when trying to find affordable retail space. Small business have a tough time, even when they can afford to rent space, because landlords are often more interested in leasing to "credit" tenants who they believe are less likely to go delinquent on the lease.

One of the callers into the show brought up the small business culture in Portland, Oregon. This is something I intended to blog last winter, after I spent 4 days in the city.

(from dennis.tang on Flickr) 

 People in Portland absolutely love small businesses. It's like there's something in the air or the water there. They will go out of their way to patronize a small business in lieu of a chain business. I'm not sure there's another city where Powell's could not just survive but thrive, for example.

I went to one great little coffee shop in downtown Portland (it was not Stumptown, but it was a few blocks away). The owner told me that he is one of 32 coffee roasters in Portland. Not just a coffee shop, but a roaster. A bar owner I met was basically serving glorified homebrew from a hole in the wall pub, and he explained that Portland has dozens and dozens of microbreweries scattered across the city.

This was incredible to me. By my count, DC has 2 coffee roasters (plus another 2 or 3 in the suburbs); and 3 microbreweries (and a handful more in the suburbs), all three of which opened in the past two years.

There are a lot of reasons why DC isn't Portland, or why pretty much every city isn't Portland, for that matter. There's local laws and regulations, local economies, etc. But one key consideration is simply cultural. In DC, people get excited about the prospect of a new Dunkin Donuts at least as much as a new local donut shop. I got myself into a whole lot of trouble when I asked why everyone was getting so excited about WaWa last year.

Arguably this is the result of the "mixing pot" nature of DC. People come to DC from all over the place. So people from the Northeast feel safe at Dunkin Donuts. People from everywhere else feel safe at Starbucks. People like eating at Chipotle because they remember eating at Chipotle back home. I was the same way for a while. I bought foods and drinks that reminded me of back home. I've seen stopped buying them quite so frequently.

Small business culture isn't non-existent in DC. It's pretty good, actually. But the culture in Portland is just out-of-control good. If I could say there's a single thing about Portland that I wish I could have brought back with me - that's what it would be.

On Being a Food Snob

Recently somebody accused me of being a food snob. This was the first time in my life this ever happened and frankly, caught me by surprise. Being called a food snob isn't a title that most people want. Being a called a snob of any kind isn't a title that most people want. When it comes to food though, this is completely backwards - people should strive to be food snobs.

(from Alph on Flickr)

What does that mean exactly? It doesn't mean that you go to fancy restaurants owned by iron chefs. Hell, it doesn't mean that you ever even go out to restaurants. Being a food snob means caring about your food, its freshness, how it's prepared and cooked, and what impact it has on your health.

A person who eats at McDonalds, buys boxed Kraft macaroni and cheese and makes sandwiches with white bread and American cheese wouldn't be considered a food snob.

A person who shops at farmers markets, buys fresh fruits and vegetables, and makes garden salads at home with feta cheese and homemade vinaigrette, paired with pan seared yellow tail tuna might quality as a food snob.

This is a shame, because American society sees the first person as a regular, average Joe. Society sees the second person as some kind of out-of-touch elitist. The second person, nonetheless, is probably also lot healthier and gets to enjoy more interesting and flavorful food.

I think the number of cooking and food-related shows on TV these days is a great thing. I think the fact that there are now two cable channels dedicated to food and cooking is great. Some people believe these shows are the driving force behind the "foodie" movement, and that's a plausible belief. But it's not mainstream - not yet anyway. It won't be mainstream until people who care about food are no longer considered to be "snobs".
As part of NPR's new Cities project, they recently aired a story about the "war on cars" on All Things Considered. It's kind of a stale topic in my opinion; but alas, here I am re-hashing it, so I'll admit to being complicit.

(from karen.j.ybanez on Flickr)

Now, I don't own a car. Neither do many of my friends. But almost all of us drive. How's that possible? Well... there's rental cars and car-sharing, to start. Not owning a car is not the same as never driving, a point that's frequently misapplied in these debates.

The bigger problem with this discussion is that it's framed as all-or-nothing when it's actually quite nuanced. Let's dissect a not-very-good argument from Chuck Thies, who's made some not-very-good arguments on this topic in the past. Here's his quote from the NPR story:
Take a look around. Right here, I see four bikes, five or six pedestrians; and I see, what, 50 cars? This is the predominant form of transportation in America. In fact, it's something that we can't live without.
OK, fine - there are lots of cars. Then he makes this point: 
When you get a refrigerator delivered to your house, when someone goes to a construction site with a bunch of 2-by-4s, they don't bring it on a bicycle. They don't bring it on a Metro. They bring it in an automobile. It's easy to vilify the automobile, but it's not productive.
Here's the key question that doesn't get answered... of the 50 cars mentioned in the first part of the quote, how many of them are delivering a refrigerator or a bunch of 2-by-4s to a construction site? And how many of them have a single motorist transporting no cargo at all?

If the answer is that most of the 50 cars are transporting just 1 or 2 people and no cargo, then it's fair to criticize the automobile, or rather, the very non-productive way that people are using it. It's being used in a way that it's jamming up streets and causing congestion and making it harder for the refrigerator deliverymen and the construction workers and the fire fighters to get where they're going. 

There's competition for resources, in this case road-space. The debate is being framed as having four players: motorists, public transit vehicles, pedestrians and bicyclists; and they're all in competition with each other. But that's not quite right. There are really at least five players: motorists who need to use the road (like deliverymen, construction workers, emergency responders, etc.), motorists who want to use the road (like white collar office workers commuting to and from the suburbs), 
public transit vehicles, pedestrians and bicyclists. 

The motorists who
want to use the road are really the ones sucking up the most resources, relatively speaking. When someone's life is on the line and an ambulance has to spend 5 or 6 valuable minutes just trying to get around Dupont Circle because the street is jam-packed with single-occupant sedans and SUVs, that doesn't seem quite fair, does it? 

When I drive to Ikea to pick up some big bulky furniture, guess what I drive... a pickup truck. It's the most efficient way of getting myself and my stuff back home. And when I'm going to my white collar job in my downtown office building, I use a bicycle or Metro. The context is different, and the most efficient means of transportation for me is different because of it. I'm a motorist. I'm a bicyclist. I'm a pedestrian. I don't just fall into a single category.

It would be highly inefficient for me to buy a pickup truck because twice a year I need to go to Ikea, and then to drive in it alone to work everyday. Yet this is exactly the thought calculus that goes through some people's heads when they decide what kind of car to buy and how to get around.

DC has been moving in exactly the right direction when it comes to transportation planning. Some of the things the city is doing are new, different, and fly in the face of decades of bad policy. It's scary to some people, but that doesn't make it wrong. 
Tom Rotunno has a fascinating article about beer and President Obama. I didn't realize for example, that the President is the first to home brew inside the White House (as opposed to at his personal home). Even more interesting is how beer plays into campaigning. While in Ohio recently, Obama drank Bud Light. Rotunno writes...

Marketing consultant Laura Ries thinks Bud Light is a good fit for the President.

“Going with Bud Light is a safe choice and is probably the best choice,” says Ries. “Bud says 'leader.' I think it is still believed by Joe SixPack across the nation to be an 'all-American' beer. Even though it is owned by a foreign conglomerate now, most people don’t think about it. The average person thinks of Budweiser as an American choice.”
This is an interested tidbit about American business and politics. Even though both Bud Light and Miller Light are owned by foreign companies (InBev of Belgium and SABMiller of the UK) the typical Joe SixPack either doesn't know or doesn't care. He still considers it a true American product. 

In a way, this is very weird, it would be akin to the President shopping at Ikea (a giant foreign conglomerate) to show his status as a regular American guy. OK, it's not really the same, because most people know Ikea is a Scandinavian corporation that was at no point an American company. In that sense, it's more a question of history and perception.

But still, there are tons of actual honest-to-god American beer companies. It's just that they're called "craft breweries" and the Joe SixPacks of America don't buy craft beer because it's more expensive and viewed as culturally elitist. Bud Light is the workin' man's beer and Joe SixPack probably wouldn't be caught dead drinking a Dogfish Head Festina Peche.

(from john holzer on Flickr)

Whatever you think of their beverages, you can't deny that Dogfish Head is the kind of small business that politicians love to talk about. If Dogfish Head sold hardware instead of beer, it's easy to imagine the President shopping there rather than Home Depot. 
I don't know how I missed this one. Cleveland's casino opened just under a few months ago and already there are reports that the new employees are quitting in droves. Well, OK, that's not all that surprising on the surface. The service industry is a sucky place to work. The pay probably isn't very good. The hours probably aren't very good. The customers probably feel entitled and treat the employees like dirt. I get it - I worked enough summers earning minimum wage at an amusement park to know the reality of these jobs.

(from Erik Daniel Drost on Flickr)

But the thing is... Cleveland's casino was supposed  to be a godsend to the city because of the 1,600 new jobs it was going  to "create" in a city where people are desperate for jobs. More than a few times I heard a phrase that went something like "the people who really hit the jackpot at the new casino are the people who found jobs after being unemployed."

These clearly aren't the kinds of "good" jobs that politicians love to talk about on the stump. They are a lot of crappy jobs, the kind of crappy jobs that people aren't willing to do even in a high unemployment environment.

When it comes to casinos, supporters have made one point abundantly clear: no matter how you feel about gambling, surely you support jobs, right? Nobody is going to say they don't; but this makes it pretty clear that not all jobs are created equal.

Local policy makers can either focus on "jobs" or they can focus on "good jobs". You can get "jobs" by doing something as simple as plopping a gambling hall in the middle of town; but getting "good jobs" requires different and more complex investments in people and places.
My last year of college, I was infamously bad at cooking, and more of my meals than I should probably admit were enjoyed at local watering holes. On-face, eating out seems way more expensive than cooking, but I had a solution to that... I would only order the daily specials at local restaurants. For example, 40-cent wing Mondays, half-price pizza Tuesdays, or $5 burger and fries Thursdays.

(from Kevin H. on Flickr)

A friend of the blog once asked, "what if you don't feel like eating pizza on Tuesdays or Burgers on Thursdays?" It caught me off guard, because I never really ate meals based on what I felt like (sans for the occasional evening visit to a restaurant). It was always just based on what I figured I could afford.

These days, I cook a lot more; but my meals are still meticulously planned. Every Wednesday I get the Harris Teeter circular, I look at the best sales and make a meal plan based on that. On Friday I get the weekly "e-Vic" email, make adjustments based on those sales; then on Saturday I go to the store and get a week's worth of groceries. I still don't eat based on what I feel like on any given day.

Planning out meals saves money in two ways. First, I buy based on the best sales. If chicken is on sale in a given week, I tend to eat chicken that week. If bread and deli items are on sale, it's sandwiches during the week. Second, waste is greatly reduced. When you don't have a plan to use up your perishable food, you inevitably wind up throwing out stuff that turns bad. Freezing kind of works, but only if you remember to do it before the food turns.

I love Cook's Illustrated and America's Test Kitchen, but my problem with these is that they assume you have an unlimited grocery budget and can afford to make the test kitchen's "perfect" recipe. For example, they might have a recipe that calls for ground turkey rather than ground turkey breast, and they might have a very legitimate reason for it. But if ground breast is on sale for significantly less money, what am I to do? Similarly, what if they suggest using one cut of beer over another, but the less preferable cut is half the price?

To me, the ability to be truly spontaneous when it comes to meals is a luxury. Regardless of whether it's eating out or cooking, I know it would cost me a lot more money. This is also the reason I don't pay much attention to the debates over whether processed food is more or less expensive than fresh produce. This is only a concern if you don't plan your meals or shop the sales.
Last weekend I read a very interesting article by Hannah Wallace in Spirit Magazine during my flight to Cleveland. The story is about Joe Cimperman, a Cleveland city councilman who is taking urban farming to the next level.

(from eustatic on Flickr) 

Urban farming is a hot topic in the Rust Belt, where cities have an unfortunate amount of vacant property. If vacancy is inevitable and proper development is hopeless, planting some produce on the land seems like a better use of the land than anything else.

The benefits of having locally grown food seem obvious and have been documented; and when it comes to vacant lots, it's usually local laws that are stopping farming from happening. Zoning, for example, might permit a land parcel to be used only for residential purposes. An urban farm would be considered an agricultural or industrial use, and thus would be illegal. Politicians like Joe Cimperman are slowly changing this.

In cities where land is expensive and vacant lots are more the exception than the rule, urban farming isn't such a hot topic. To me, the problem is that we think about this in an all-or-nothing context. Either a plot of land is used for living, or it's used for farming, but it can't be something in between. Even urbanists who talk about "mixed use" development typically refer specifically to residential/commercial mixing of uses.

Yes, there are a lot of vacant parcels in the city of Cleveland where produce could be planted. There are also thousands upon thousands of acres in suburban Cleveland where people grow grass and pay a ton of money maintaining it. Some suburban homes have yards that are the size of multiple land parcels in the city itself.

Some people do maintain personal gardens - that's true. My grandparents maintained a very extensive garden in suburban Cleveland when I was growing up. But zoning laws typically specify that gardens can't be used for commercial farming. In other words, you can grow a bunch of tomatoes and peppers for you and your family, but it would be illegal to sell them at a neighborhood farmers market. Beyond that, homeowners associations and other de facto rules often make it not worth the hassle to even try.

Urban farming is fine for turning otherwise hopeless land into something useful again, but truly "local" agriculture will have to incorporate suburban farming in order to be truly comprehensive.

Criminality and Motoring

Daniel Ikenson has an interesting post over at Cato-at-Liberty about the ordeal he went through after his car was towed in DC. It's written as a story about big bad government and municipal incompetence. But it's also full of ideological holes that are worth noting.

(from tvol on Flickr)

The author opens by describing the parking situation near Nationals Park:
About three blocks from the stadium, there were plenty of legal parking spots along the street and signs indicating how to pay for parking by telephone. It would cost $1.50 per hour or about $10 total – a steal compared to the $30-$40 being charged in the nearby lots. The Pay-by-Phone system was simple enough to use: I registered my tag and my credit card number by phone, and was messaged a “Parkmobile” app to use for loading and reloading the meter from my phone. Sweet and simple!
This is curious because a true libertarian would likely believe that the price for parking should be whatever the market can bear. If the legal government spaces are priced significantly lower than the privately owned spaces, it would suggest that the government is subsidizing those spaces. Any why is the government in the business of providing parking spaces for baseball games anyway? But hey, why pay $30 when you can pay $10, regardless of your ideology?

In the story, the author later comes back to his car to find that it has been towed. And the reason? Because he had outstanding speeding tickets, because he was delinquent on the payments, and because he parked on city property, so they towed his car. He chalks this all up to big government using data in a very efficient manner.
What had happened was that upon registering my tags to initiate the Pay-by-Phone meter service, a database linked to the computer system of the otherwise incompetent DPW generated a red flag indicating the location of a vehicle associated with unpaid fines. DPW acted with dispatch and efficiency to steal my car to hold as collateral, and then with incompetence about locating it and indifference about the enormous inconvenience and expense of the process.
There's some bold rhetoric, but there's a few key things to remember here. 1) if he hadn't speeded and gotten the tickets in the first place, his car wouldn't have been towed; 2) if he'd paid the fines for said speeding tickets, his car wouldn't have been towed; 3) if he'd parked in one of the private (albeit expensive) lots near the ballpark, his car wouldn't have been towed.

Was the situation frustrating? Surely. But it's a straw man that doesn't really get to the heart of the issue. I read this post essentially as a complaint about two things.

First, that the government is too efficient and knows too much about us. The city managed to use parking meter technology, run a license plate through a database, flag the vehicle for having delinquent speedingtickets, and dispatch a tow truck to take it away, all within a matter of hours. They busted a delinquent speeder who otherwise showed no intention of paying his fines.

Second, that the government is not efficient enough and knows to little. Once the author called the dispatcher, they were unable to locate his car. They were awfully bad at logging the towed car into the system and the rep on the phone screwed up pretty royally by giving him the wrong address for the impound lot.

The author closes with this:
And be careful about the allure of technological convenience; it might just be Big Brother waiting to pounce.
Ultimately, is this situation any different than if a parking enforcement officer or a police officer came by, saw the car had been red flagged and called for a tow?

Herein lies one of the biggest internal struggles among libertarians. Is it better to spend more money to have real people do a job (in this case, enforce the law)? Spend less money to have a technological solution? Or should we not care when people break the law and don't pay the price?

House Hunting

After years of living without cable TV, it's now an amenity that my landlord includes in my rent. I usually put on Food Network in the background while doing something else, like writing this blog; but I have caught a few episodes of House Hunters. Turns out, the show is completely phony. That's good to know, but if it weren't, the show would make absolutely no sense.

(from sean dreilinger on Flickr)

Think about it. You never see someone lose a house because of a botched inspection, or because they get outbid by another prospective buyer, or because they can't get the right financing. In fact, you never see any other house hunters - it's almost like the three houses they see are temporarily removed from the market and the contestants on their show get their unconditional pick of property.

Anyone who has house hunted in DC or a similarly big city, especially in the rental market, knows just how absurd the show's concept is. The idea of being able to view three places and get your pick of any one of the them would be an unbelievable deal. More typically, house hunters are competing with dozens of others, filling out applications, writing checks before open houses, and hearing the all to often phrase "sorry, we decided to go with another applicant."

The most entertaining thing about the show is watching with frustration at just how opinionated and unrealistic many of the house hunters are. Then again, they might just be acting. If that's the case, the $500 stipend seems like a really small payment for making yourself look like a fool on national television.

Last weekend Angie Schmitt pointed me to an article by Douglas Trattner in Fresh Water Cleveland. The author suggests Rust Belt cities, left for dead, are suddenly booming again. Angie was suspicious of some of the claims and I offered to check it out. Let's start with the article...
Daily, it seems, another cultural sociologist is writing about the current trend of reverse migration -- young creatives fleeing the Coasts in droves in favor of "decaying" industrial cities like Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Detroit. These cities, you see, are appealing because of the decay. That and ironic pleasures like bowling, pierogies, and polka.

Of course, there is enough truth and fiction in that charming narrative to choke a thesis on contemporary demographics. The truth is, young people are moving back to cities like Cleveland, Detroit and Pittsburgh -- and at rates that outpace those of posh suburban zip codes. Offering the promise of a better (cheaper) quality of life -- and yes, the ironic pleasures of bowling, pierogies, and polka -- Rust Belt cities truly have become "chic."

The pivotal point in the narrative may have occurred on May 12, 2012. That's when Salon published the article "Rust Belt Chic: Declining Midwest cities make a comeback." The sub-hed was "Gritty Rust Belt cities, once left for dead, are on the rise -- thanks to young people priced out of cooler locales."
The quote above conflates two distinct ideas. First, that young people have found new love for Rust Belt cities because the "cooler locales" in coastal metros have gotten so expensive that young people can't afford them anymore. Second, that when these people live in rust belt cities, they opt for the urban core rather than the "posh" suburbs.

I think the second point has some merit, and it's been documented that even in central Cleveland neighborhoods that are losing population, the number of young people in those neighborhoods is growing (the key to remember is that these neighborhoods are still shrinking, they're just shifting appeal to a younger crowd). Nevertheless, the first point is open to interpretation, and whether you think it's true or not depends how you define "droves" of people.

To figure out the answer to this question requires more than just anecdotes about people who moved from Brooklyn to Cleveland or San Francisco to Detroit. I dug into ACS data from 2008-2010 to answer a few key questions for the three cities mentioned in the article above:
  1. How many moved from the Rust Belt metro to a coastal metro?
  2. How many moved from a coastal metro to the Rust Belt metro? 
  3. How do the two numbers compare?
I looked at three groups who moved: everyone, people aged 20-35 (since much of the literature on this topic refers specifically to "young people") and people with college degrees (to address the "brain drain" question). Coastal metros for this analysis are those top 50 metro areas that are located in a state that touches either the Atlantic or the Pacific Ocean. A full list of them can be viewed here.

Let's start with Cleveland. Between 2008 and 2010, more people left for the coasts each year on average than came, and the results are statistically significant (the thin bars on these charts represent the calculated 95% confidence interval). However, there's no statistically significant difference between the number of young people and the number of degree holders who are in-movers and out-movers. Cleveland had the fewest number of migrants in either direction of the three Rust Belt metros in question.

(click to enlarge)

Detroit is a different story. In all three categories there are more out-movers than in-movers. Consistent with most accounts of depopulation, more people are decamping from Detroit for the coasts than vice-versa.

(click to enlarge)

Pittsburgh is an interesting case because more people arrived from the coasts than left for them. However, when you filter it down by young people and degree holders, there's no significant difference. What's interesting about Pittsburgh is that what appears to be driving the first set of columns is that there are more kids (and presumably thus families) moving to the metro area than in Cleveland or Detroit.

(click to enlarge)

In the end, these graphics show something interesting; but I don't think they're consistent with the bold claims made in the Freshwater article. You could argue that the data is old, and that the shift didn't start until 2011. Maybe that's true, but we'll have to wait to find out.

You could argue that Cleveland and Pittsburgh are actually in great shape if the number of young people and degree holders that are leaving are being replaced at essentially a 1-to-1 ratio. I really have no dog in  this fight, I just want to numbers to back up the rhetoric. Anecdotal evidence only goes so far.

When thinking about in and out migration, I think it's important to be cautious of the availability heuristic. When someone leaves a metro area, they usually do it quietly. They pack up, leave, and then people in that area rarely hear from them again. But when someone moves from another metro area, you hear about it all the time, because there are plenty of opportunities to hear about it. I suspect that people remember many more cases of people moving to their city than they remember cases of people leaving.

I'll end by saying that I understand why people want to live in Rust Belt cities. For some, the low cost of living makes the quality of life unbeatable. That might not be true for me, or for others, but I wouldn't question why someone would want to move there.
Last week after I posted about Capital Bikeshare's Reverse Rider Rewards experiment, Mr. T in DC tweeted this in response:

@bikeshare needs to better incentivie uphill trips to Ward 1!
There's some anecdotal evidence that suggests that people are riding CaBi bikes downhill to get to wherever they're going, and then taking the bus or Metro back uphill, rather than trying to huff it and puff it on one of the heavy red bikes. It's something that was discussed last year on Kojo. In theory, it makes perfect sense.

I dug into the data and found that it's happening to an extent - more people are riding CaBi bikes down hills than back up them; but it's not happening at quite the exaggerated rate that some people seem to suggest.

The truth is that the majority of Capital Bikeshare trips start and end at about the same elevation. I looked at 327,680 trips taken from January through March of 2012 in the District (unfortunately I had to exclude Arlington due to issues with the elevation data), and the median elevation change was only 2.9 feet downhill. That's it!

In fact, more than three-quarters of all Bikeshare trips had elevation changes of less than 60 feet. Still, there were more trips that went 60 or more feet downhill than there were that went uphill. Why 60 feet? Because that's roughly one standard deviation from the mean; and it seemed more reasonable than picking an arbitrary number. The results are basically the same whether you're talking about registered or casual users.

(click to enlarge)

Regardless of where you draw the cutoff, even at a generous 30 feet up or down, the fact remains that a majority of CaBi trips start and end at roughly the same elevation.

(click to enlarge)

A histogram of all CaBi trips from the first quarter of this year shows what seems approximately to be a normal distribution with a slight skew to the left (downhill trips). The median, nonetheless, is squarely in the middle.

(click to enlarge)

There is one additional thing worth noting. Of course while we can calculate the elevation where the trip starts and ends, it ignores any elevation changes along the route. For example, someone traveling from Woodley Park to Capitol Hill via the National Mall will experience greater changes in elevation than this analysis suggests. Unfortunately, it's very difficult to calculate exact elevation changes without knowing actual routes. For now, we have to leave this as-is. 

What's the implication of this? I think it suggests that some people are riding CaBi in only the downhill direction, and that could be one reason the system becomes unbalanced. but the problem isn't as widespread as some may have feared. The reason why stations become unbalanced is certainly more complex than the topology of the city.
I recently heard homeownership described by an academic professor as "the ultimate rent control". It's an interesting perspective, and one that's generally true, especially in high-cost cities where rents are rising with seemingly no end in sight. When it comes to affordable housing, buying a home, at the very least, means locking in a monthly payment that will be roughly the same for the next 30 years, regardless of how the price of anything else in the economy changes.

(from allaboutgeorge on Flickr)

The reason I say this perspective is unique is because people often talk about homeownership in less practical, more idealized ways. Take this blurb from an NPR story on the subject, for example.
The economic hammer has fallen especially hard on 20somethings — part of the so-called Millennial Generation or Gen Y born roughly between 1975 and 1995. Plagued by high unemployment, many have had to delay careers, marriage and having children. And the idea of owning a home is more often being put off or written off entirely. In a nation where homeownership is part of the American dream, a generation of renters could alter communities where they live and redefine the idea of middle-class success.
Let me say that as one of these "20somethings", the desire to own a home has little to do with settling down, or growing up, "achieving the dream", or any other abstract measure of success. It's a simple financial cost/benefit consideration: What's my rent today? What's my rent likely to be in 10 years? And if I continue renting, do I have the ability to acquire assets with my income after paying for rent?

The problem in the years leading up to the bubble was that in a lot of cities home prices were appreciating at a rate far exceeding the rate at which rent was increasing. That should have been a huge red flag that there was trouble brewing in the market, and in hindsight, it seems obvious.

But now the tides have turned. In a lot of cities, rents are spiraling out of control. If I live in a city where rents are growing more rapidly than home prices, it might seem like a bad deal to buy, because there's not going to be much appreciation. And this is exactly the wrong way to think about it. In this case, buying isn't about using debt to leverage an asset, it's about hedging against rent inflation. It's locking in a monthly price and essentially paying "rent" into a pseudo-account that I'll be able to withdraw at some point in the future, rather than paying it to a landlord.

By far, in my opinion, the biggest problem is this... again from the NPR story, emphasis mine.
"The capacity to own a home will be powerfully affected by the slowdown in [their] earnings," she says, "especially for entry-level workers and the crushing consequences of student loan debt."
The one thing that the current generation has that the Baby Boom generation did not is insane amounts of student debt, which we were told was a good idea when we were 18 years old and now that we're 20somethings, starting to question.

When you rent a place, you usually have to put up a security deposit equal to one month's rent or less. When you buy a place, you need to put up a downpayment, which in a high-cost area, can be a very non-negligible sum. Plus, a smart homebuyer wouldn't even think of taking the plunge unless they had another several thousand tucked away for emergencies. When you're already handling 5-figure student debt, it's challenging to handle saving for a downpayment at the same time.

Still, there's something to be said for the flexibility argument. Because of what's happened in a lot of markets, there's a real fear that owning a home means being stuck with an asset that you can't sell when you want or need to sell.  If you need to move, whether for a job or for some other reason, renting gives you that almost immediate flexibility. Most people sign leases one-year at a time. Few renters, or landlords, would be comfortable entering into a 30 year lease, which essentially, is what buying a home with a mortgage is.

But again, it's all about the cost calculation. Owning a home means a generally fixed monthly housing payment and forced saving for the future. The benefit to a new job in a new city would have to be pretty significant for it to be worth it. Unfortunately, for someone unemployed, the option of any job in another city is probably worthwhile, and these are unfortunate situations where they can truly be "stuck".

Unless of course you like moving because you bore easily and like moving. In that case, then of course renting is the superior option when it comes to flexibility.
Capital Bikeshare is great, and I really love having it. This recent post over at DCist, however, reminds me that unbalanced stations are still one of the system's major flaws. I've experienced both full and empty stations, as I'm sure anyone who uses the system enough has or will.

(from Mr. T in DC on Flickr)

When I first heard about CaBi, my initial reaction was "won't everyone just ride them downtown in the morning and back out in the afternoon?" The person who was telling me about Capital Bikeshare completely brushed off the concern, saying "oh don't worry, there are guys with trucks to move them around".

Of course, guys with trucks can only do so much and can only move so quickly, and there are currently no other mechanisms in place to rebalance stations. Last summer there was an experiment called "Reverse Rider Rewards" that was designed to encourage CaBi members to rebalance stations during the morning rush hour. It ran during June, July and August; but I never really heard much about it after that.

Reverse Rider Rewards was set up so that a trip from a "typically full station" to a "typically empty station" earned the Bikeshare member a point and entry into a raffle. At the end of the month, prizes were given to folks with the most points and to the winners of the raffle.

It's not especially easy to declare the experiment a success or a failure. The chart below shows the daily number of trips from "typically full stations" to "typically empty stations" between 8am - 10am, for all non-holiday weekdays March through November (the three months before and three months after the contest period) and for only registered members (to be consistent with the rules of the contest).

(click to enlarge)

There is a bump in the number of "reverse" trips starting on June 1st. This is exactly what we would hope would happen. The biggest question is whether it's a big enough bump to make any difference in station balance. Unfortunately, the total number of trips from typically empty to typically full stations ("forward" trips I'll call them) clearly still overwhelms the number of "reverse" trips by a ratio of nearly 10-to-1.

(click to enlarge)

Was the experiment a success? It depends on how you define the outcome. There was a noticable jump in "reverse" trips during the contest period, but without a multivariate analysis, it's impossible to know whether Reverse Riders was actually the cause or if it was merely correlated by chance. On the other hand, Reverse Riders clearly didn't generate enough interest to offset the number of "forward" trips with "reverse" trips.

What else can be done? What about better incentives? Cash rewards instead of points and prizes? What about a negative incentive (ie. a "congestion fee" for all trips from typically empty to typically full stations)? Or do we just need to invest in more guys and more trucks? Maybe living with full and empty stations the price we have to pay to keep the system "free" in its current state?

The only evidence we have so far is that Reverse Rider Rewards maybe kind of worked a little, and that's ignoring the fact that there was surely some cost to administer the contest. If we're fine with the occasionally empty or full station, then that's the end of the conversation. If we're not, then more study and experimentation needs to be done.
Sabrina Tavernise has an article in the New York Times about the growing educational divide in American cities. I'm glad that she chose to highlight Dayton, Ohio because I know a ton of people in DC that went to school in Dayton. For that matter, I know more people in DC who went to college in Dayton than any other metro area of a similar size. There is a huge University of Dayton alumni network in DC; and their alumni take a lot of pride in it. But the flip side of it is that all of those grads are no longer living in Dayton.

(from Jordan Weaver on Flickr)

I think Tavernise's opening paragraph is easily misinterpreted.
As cities like this one try to reinvent themselves after losing large swaths of their manufacturing sectors, they are discovering that one of the most critical ingredients for a successful transformation — college graduates — is in perilously short supply. 
But wait, who exactly is in short supply? Is it people graduating from college in that city? Or is it people with college degrees living in that city? The answer is the latter, but the way it's written, it sounds like the former.

One statistic that I wish Tavernise had included in her article, in addition to the percentage of degree holders, is the number of college students currently living and studying in Dayton. The Dayton metro area has a big state university, a large and affordable community college, and a handful of respectable private colleges and universities.

From the 2007-2010 American Community Survey, there are about 78,155 undergraduate, graduate, and community college students in the Dayton metro area. Yet there are only 140,797 degree holders age 25 and older.

To me that's an incredible statistic. If Dayton wants to significantly boost the number of degree holders, it need not spend resources trying to lure people in from other cities - they just need to keep the people who are earning degrees in Dayton to stay in Dayton!  Of course, this isn't happening, as both the numbers and the anecdotes show. The ratio of degree holders to students in Dayton is 1.8-to-1. In DC, by comparison, that ratio is 3.7-to-1.

Or to think of it another way, college students make up 9.2% of the total population in the Dayton metro area. That's more than in the Columbus metro (8.1%) even though Columbus has OSU - the university with the third largest enrollment in America. Columbus is known as being something of a college town; Dayton isn't. The Dayton metro area has more college students than the Ann Arbor metro area (68,014) - another well known "college town".

The bottom line is that Dayton has a very non-negligible number of college students living and graduating there. This is really something that shouldn't be overlooked.

Cities love to tout universities as one of their best assets; and universities can be incredible assets if they can bring people into a city from someplace else and keep them there. If people are going to Dayton to attend college there, or even staying in Dayton rather than attending college elsewhere, that's a highly valuable group of people, who will eventually earn degrees potentially contribute to the local economy. The key is that this only works if they stick around, and in the case of Dayton, they aren't.
Over the weekend someone made an interesting case to me. This person argued that when you think about the total cost of driving, gasoline isn't actually that expensive, relatively speaking. It was an interesting point-of-view, because when I hear people complaining about how it's so expensive to drive, usually they complain about the price of gasoline.

(from TheTruthAbout on Flickr)

There are really only two costs that every driver must always pay every month... there's the cost of insurance, and the cost of fuel.

Let's say I have a pretty run-of-the-mill insurance policy in DC. It's better than state minimum liability coverage but not quite comprehensive coverage either. $80 per month sounds reasonable for this sort of policy. Now let's assume I drive a pretty average car that gets 30 miles per gallon on average and is completely paid off.  Let's also assume that gasoline costs $4 per gallon. That means that for the same $80 I could drive my car 600 miles. That's a lot of miles!

So unless I live more than 15 miles from my job and drive every day; or unless I make a lot of non-work related trips; or unless the price of gasoline goes well above $4 per gallon, I'm probably not going to spend more on gasoline every month than I'm going to spend on insurance.

Of course, this isn't meant to suggest that driving isn't expensive - it's really expensive. But this obviously isn't simply because the price of gasoline is what it is. All of the other costs matter, and they probably matter even more than some people think.
When it comes to Wi-Fi in coffee shops, I've had a pretty strong shift in opinion over the past few years. If you can remember, this blog used to be written entirely from a single coffee shop in Cleveland.

During that time I spent a lot time in that coffee shop. I made friends with many of the baristas. I made friends with the owners. And I spent a lot of money. A friend of the blog calculated  that I was on pace to spend over a thousand dollars at that coffee shop by the end of the year, and I was fine with that, because it was my favorite local business. If that shop hadn't been friendly to me bringing my laptop into the store, I still would have gone their occasionally, but would have stuck to making most of my coffee at home.

(from M.V. Jantzen on Flickr)

The reason my opinion has changed is because my environment has changed. Coffee shops in DC tend to be busy, crowded, and because of high rents, they can't afford big swaths of open space for dozens of tables and couches and fireplaces everything else. It's simply not comfortable to bring a laptop into many of the local coffee houses.

I can sympathize with the guys who run Filter and Qualia and who don't want to offer Wi-Fi all the time or even at all. You should really listen to their take on this issue over on the Kojo Show. While the people upset with their decision may shout the loudest, I suspect that there are a lot of people who agree with the owners.

In a way, free Wi-Fi is like free parking. Sometimes it makes sense for businesses , because it's a means to get people in the door. Sometimes if you don't have Wi-Fi (or parking) some customers will go elsewhere. But in a big major city, seats in coffee shops (and free parking spaces) are in short supply and high demand. Having a few seats (or parking spaces) that a small number of people hog all day long simply doesn't make any sense. It doesn't matter if free Wi-Fi (or parking) is what people are used to. This is just the new reality.

Rising Rents

When it comes to the housing market, there are a lot of "supply side" advocates who argue that housing is expensive because there's not enough of it. I've been skeptical of this, at least on-face. I think the issue is more complicated than simply building more houses and convincing people is even harder still. I posed this question to Matthew Yglesias earlier in the week.
If we accept the premise that density is desirable, how does building more housing units actually lower rents in practice?...  Let's say we build more housing in DC's core by removing the height limit and the average rent in the metro area decreases; but rents in the core increase (due to higher demand for density) while the rents on the fringe decrease (due to greater overall supply of housing in the market). Has the policy succeeded because some housing in the overall market is now less expensive? Or has it failed because now the only affordable housing is the housing with the highest transportation cost?
Here's his answer. I generally think it's adequate but not compelling.
I think success and failure are relative concepts... In the scenario you're spelling out, we've hardly solved all of society's problems, but we have created a situation in which more people can afford to live in the region... And even if the cheapest housing continues to be in the places with the highest transportation costs, those costs would still be lower than the current cost of even-further commutes, even-more sprawl, or simply denying people access to the strong labor market and other amenities of greater DC.
Herein lies the reason why NIMBYism is such a difficult hurdle to overcome in this debate.

Let's say I live in some neighborhood and a developer proposes to build a new luxury building. That total number of units in my neighborhood and in the region goes up. Rents stabilize in some parts of the region, and developers don't need to sprawl farther out along the fringe to get housing built. For society as a whole, this new building is probably a good thing.

BUT, this new luxury building would make my neighborhood more desirable, demand would go up in my neighborhood, and it would make my rent go up when my lease comes up for renewal. So, as a renter, it's perfectly rational that I would want to stop this new building from getting built if I think my rent is more likely to remain stable without it.

Taxi Cab Deregulation

I've been in DC for about 2 years. During that time I've ridden in 9 taxi cabs. All of those rides have been business-related. I've never used my own money to hire a cab, and I don't plan on doing it anytime soon. I've had far too many negative cab experiences to make me want to do it again. I know of others who feel similarly.

Robert Samuels has a great article in the Post abut the mayhem that occurs at Union Station after midnight as people arriving on late-night trains try to get a ride home. I'd add that this phenomenon is not limited only to Union Station. My understanding is that trying to get a cab ride on a Friday or Saturday night is nearly impossible if you aren't in a group or if your destination isn't in a "choice" neighborhood.

(from afagen on Flickr)

During the late night hours, DC doesn't have taxi dispatchers or inspectors, so many cabbies make a calculated risk to disobey the law. In a sense, this creates a very interesting natural experiment. During normal hours, cab drivers operate mostly in accordance with the law. After hours, that all changes.

Cabs are a highly regulated industry. The government licenses drivers. The government sets the fares. The government enforces the rules. Late at night, the cab industry morphs into a sort of free market, where drivers become profit maximizers. The highest bidders get served first, and everyone else can fend for themselves.

The response to the article, especially these letters to the editors, makes me believe that many people aren't happy with the current system, not because it's over-regulated, but because the regulations are too weakly enforced and drivers aggressively try to skirt them. We don't need to imagine what a de-regulated cab industry in DC would look like because, for a few hours each night, we can already witness it.
Richard Florida's interview with Jonah Lehrer over at the Atlantic Cities about "creative density" got me thinking about the work I did on "degree density" back in 2010. The concept that Lehrer describes is relatively simple: lots of like minded people in close proximity to each other drives creativity because these people can bounce ideas off of each other and learn from each other.

Lehrer talks about David Bryne of the Talking Heads:
David Byrne, after all, wasn’t influenced by the Latin rhythms of some distant musician. Instead, Byrne was seduced by his local dance clubs, blasting those songs he could hear from the sidewalk. It is the sheer density of the city - the proximity of all those overlapping minds - that makes it such an inexhaustible source of creativity.
A major flaw with my 2010 analysis is that it focused on entire cities and counties. It ignored the fact that the size of cities is somewhat arbitrary and that density is more of a neighborhood phenomenon than a city or metro area phenomenon.

Within a single city, there can be pockets of degree density (which, admittedly, is a very crude proxy for creative density as Lehrer describes it, or even for intelligence, as many commenters have pointed out). There can be neighborhoods where lots of educated people are highly concentrated, while another neighborhood in the exact same city could be much less dense and not a place where many degree holders live.

The easiest way for me to explain this is visually. First, here's a map of the Washington DC metro area. Each dot represents 1,000 adults 25 and older with at least a college degree. Not surprisingly, degree holders are much more sparely populated in the fringe parts of the metro area than in the urban core.

(click to enlarge)  

My 2010 analysis showed that DC has about 3,400 degree holders per square mile, the fourth highest of the 50 cities that I looked at. The combined DC/Arlington/Alexandria area (the original DC triangle) has about 3,900. This map clearly shows that these folks are not evenly distributed throughout the city. There are concentrations of degree holders in Northwest DC, Capitol Hill, and certain parts of Arlington and Alexandria.
On a recent Friday afternoon I received an email sent to a group of people that suggested going to a DC United game the following Saturday. The emailer wrote "weather looks like it's going to be great!" with a link to a 10-day forecast showing sun and mild temperatures with a 20% chance of rain. 8 days went by and the weather on that Saturday turned out to be less great than anticipated.

(from Jorge Quinteros on Flickr)

I'm really glad Greg Postel published this post over at Capitol Weather Gang about the accuracy of advanced forecasting. It's worth a read, but if you're not going to click through, the short-version of is that Greg uses empirical data and shows  that forecasting accuracy decreases the farther you get from the actual date in question. It's not a surprising finding, but one that's worth re-enforcing.

Capitol Weather Gang is the best weather source around. The reason it's so great is because they not only give a forecast, but explain why they think it's going to happen, what the alternatives might be, and how confident they are in the forecast. I've never seen TV forecasters go into this level of detail. I've certainly never seen it in a generic 10-day forecast.

From what I understand, weather forecasting is a specialized skill. It's not something that an untrained person can really do especially well. I'm confident that this is the reason most people misinterpret weather forecasts.

For example, what does it mean if a forecast says 30% chance of rain? Does it mean that 3 out of 10 days this forecast appears it will rain? Does it mean that 30% of the coverage area will see some rain? Does it mean that it will rain for 30% of the day? Further, how much rain is going to occur? If it rains lightly for 5 minutes and is sunny the rest of the time, does that satisfy the condition? How does this apply to percentages given in the hour-by-hour forecasts?

These are all questions that a trained meteorologist could answer but that a lay person probably could not. Still, people often look-up a forecast up to 10 days in advance and state with confidence that it's going to be correct. That's probably a mistake.

Since I bicycle a lot, weather is more important to my daily life than it is to someone who doesn't bike very much. The only thing I've found to be truly reliable is the radar. When I wake up in the morning, I check the radar, if it looks like I'm in the clear for the next hour, I ride to work. I do the same thing in the evening. A forecast could show 90% chance of rain in a given day and I might be perfectly fine to bike to and from work without getting at all wet.